(Click here to see the pictures from this trip.)

This is the third year in the last four (we skipped 2009) that weíve invested a week in diving in central and north-central Florida. Itís not only time well spent but this year was also probably - overall - the best of the three trips.

This is a trip I first did waaaay back in winter of 1979, shortly after I got certified in Richmond, Virginia. Back then, we drove down to Crystal River (Manatees), stopped in Dunnellon (Rainbow River), then worked our way up to Williston (Blue Grotto & DevilĎs Den), and then on Branford (Orange Grove Sink & Troy Springs). Needless to say, things have changed in the ensuing 32 years.

The biggest thing, and it definitely affects the diving (especially in Crystal River), is that thereís simply a lot more development now than there was back then. It impacts the quality of the diving as the waterís simply not as clean as it used to be due to increased runoff &/or using more of the naturally flowing springs from the Florida Aquifer for human use. (And I realize things always look rosier in hindsight.)

This doesnít mean the diving isnít still good. It is. Itís just not the same as it used to be. But then again, what is???

This is also a trip where itís nice to have a small group. It makes it easier to move around day-to-day, less crowded on the rental boats we use at the beginning of the trip, minimal rental cars, etc., etc. This year was the smallest group Iíve had yet: just Mark Bricker and Kathi Berman who spent the entire week with me, and George Schneider, Brian Gendreau, and Mark Flannery, all of whom live in Florida, who just did the first day with us.

Getting to Crystal Riverís not too bad. I had routed myself through Chicago instead of taking the non-stop, because thatís where Mark & Kathi live so I hooked up with them at OíHare. From there itís another three hours down to Orlando where we picked up a rental car (a brand new Ford Flex - really nice and roomy for all the stuff we had an a good choice if youíre in the market for a dive-friendly vehicle) for the 2-hour drive to Crystal River. So we were ready to go bright and early Monday morning and seek out some Manatees, which is what Crystal River is best noted for.

The Manatees are seasonal in Crystal River, generally there from mid-December through the end of March. So donít come down here in the summertime and expect to find any. The Manatees come inland from the Gulf of Mexico because it gets too cold for them out there. They seek out the relative warmth of the constant 72ļ-water that pumps out of the springs in Crystal River (although I had 69-70ļ on my gauge).

Cold is the enemy of the Manatee and it literally can kill them. Last year (2010) was not a great year for Manatees as close to 400 died because of the cold. However, it seems like the Manatee population (they do an annual census) is at an all-time high with around 5,000 animals counted. These are split fairly evenly between Floridaís Gulf coast and the Atlantic coast. And while this season is much warmer than last year, the cold is a concern, especially because the manatees are listed on the Endangered Species List.

As a result of all of this, new regulations were enacted this year to give Fish & Wildlife Service personnel greater discretion over Manatee management. In years past, although Manatee ďsanctuariesĒ are set up (roped-off areas off-limits to humans and boat traffic), theyíre relatively limited and the process to expand them was a bit cumbersome.

The new regulations give F&WS personnel autonomy to open or close areas, and expand or contract them, as the need arises. While in the past weíve frequently encountered volunteer Manatee observers who try to keep people in line and following the rules, this year, at Three Sisters, there was a uniformed and armed F&WS officer keeping an eye on people through both of the days we were there, directing (firmly but politely) people to back off or modify behavior that could be considered manatee harassment, and writing citations for those who failed to heed the warning.

(And I must admit it was a bit weird to hear him say to one flagrant offender, ďSir, I need you to swim over to me so I can write you a citation.Ē Not sure what the remedies are if then guy swims the other way. And then I got to wondering if the citation is written on waterproof paper . . .)

But the overall goal is to not only safeguard the Manatees (the aforementioned offender had not only swum into a sanctuary area, but then kicked a manatee in the head when trying to get out, which cause a number of them to panic and scatter) but also to make it possible to for people to continue to interact with these gentle creatures. And when you realize that thereís a sign asking people not to do things like stand on the Manatees or ride them, you realize that people can sometimes be very insensitive and just plain stupid. If we canít regulate ourselves, donít be surprised when someone else steps in to do it for us.

We were happy during the course of this to give F&WS a hand the second day when there was a small Manatee that they think is orphaned and they wanted some pictures of him for further ID and study. So the F&WS officer directed everyone in the general area to give this guy wide berth, and then asked me if I could get some shots of the little fella, especially around his head because they thought he might be blind (didnít seem so to me), and e-mail them to him. I was more than happy to comply.

But Iím getting ahead of myself.

Our plan was to spend two full days diving with the Manatees. And we once again rented a pontoon boat (about 10í x 20í - can easily accommodate up to 12 people) from Port Marina & Hotel. Although there are other outfits from whom you can rent, Iíve always liked them because of the design of their boats, with a nice ďporchĒ on the front and a ladder there, making for easy on-off and also allowing us to keep the back of the boat as a dry spot for cameras, clothes, etc. (Other boats have their ladder in the back so you go off the front or the side but come back on through the back so the entire boat gets wet.) George, Brian, & Mark-F met up with Mark-B, Kathi, and me at the pontoon dock and off we went.

The two main areas where Iíve found the Manatees the past years are near King Springs, which has a large sanctuary area laid out but where the visibility is usually minimal, and at Three Sisters , which is a smaller area but where the water is usually really clear, almost like a swimming pool. We decided to start at King Springs mainly because itís only a few hundred yards from Port Marina & Hotel. It was a great choice.

Not only did we have absolutely gorgeous weather (clear & sunny) but as we pulled up to anchor, there were Manatees everywhere, both inside and outside the sanctuary. A lot of times, theyíre just resting at the surface with their flippers down and their heads down, back curved, so all you see breaking the surface is a small area of their back. Kathi immediately said, ďThey look like floating potatoesĒ and that idea stuck.

And theyíre curious potatoes. As we were gearing up (you only snorkel with the Manatees as the bubbles from scuba tend to spook them), I pointed out to everyone that we had a Manatee at the front of the boat, looking up at us and almost going ďHurry up and get in.Ē (The photoís up on the website on the Picture Page.) In fact, this is one of the few times Iíve seen this many Manatees outside the sanctuary lines at King Springs.

And even though the viz was around 10 feet or so - and an adult manatee is about that size, so sometimes you can see their head and their tail fades out into the gloom of the viz - we had some great Manatee encounters. All you need to do is be patient and the Manatees will come right up to you. Be a little more patient and theyíll start to nuzzle you and ask to be scratched. And do that well and youíll get the Holy Grail of Manatee encounters where the manatee rolls over for a belly scratch. You can almost see them saying to themselves, ďOh YES!!!!! Thatís the spot!!!!Ē

After about an hour of this, the Manatees had retreated back into the sanctuary or gone further out to forage for food, so we decided to move up to Three Sisters. One of the reasons we schedule this trip as we do (diving Monday-Friday) is to avoid weekend crowds, which can get quite large. So I was very disappointed as we made our way up the channel to Three Sisters to not only discover that the water wasnít cleaning up, but to round the corner by the spring and see that part of the reason was that there were a dozen boats there with probably 100 people in the water. And they were splashing and kicking and generally destroying whatever viz there was.

But you make the best of what youíve got and there were plenty of Manatees around. The sanctuaries are out in the main channel, which is connected to the actual three springs that comprise Three Sisters by a small run or slough, so I kicked up the slough to see what was what. Better viz inside there but not manatees. But it was also getting to be lunchtime so we figured the crowd would thin out in the afternoon and besides, we were hungry. So we pulled into Crackers, which not only offers a decent meal but which also has a public dock and is not too far from Three Sisters, so it works on many levels.

After lunch, we headed back to Three Sisters and what a change. The viz had cleared up slightly, there were definitely fewer people (but still a couple of dozen of gangly snorkelers) but now there was dozens and dozens of manatees who had gone up the slough and were spread out throughout the three inside springs and that was all delightful. We spent almost two hours there.

Tuesday we reversed the action (and it was just Mark B, Kathi, and me from here on out) and started at Three Sisters. The viz was still not great but had improved from the day before, getting up to maybe 30 feet or so (in past years, weíve had close to 100 feet of viz). And while there werenít as many Manatees as there were the previous afternoon, there were not only plenty, but a number of them seemed interested in seeking out humans. But all in all, very good Manatee interactions. Plenty of the them, plenty of scratching and belly rubbing going on, and everyone was happy about all of that.

So we left Three Sisters for our final dive of the day and this would actually be on scuba as we explored Kingís Cavern, from whence King Springs flows. Itís in the middle of the Manatee sanctuary but theyíve set the boundaries up so the spring is still accessible to divers. Plus we had the whole place to ourselves.

The dive can be a challenge and today was a no exceptions as the visible pretty much ended at my ankles. I could not see my fin tips when I looked down in the water. But thereís a buoy line that takes you right down to the cavern entrance (about 30 feet deep) and the flow from the cavern usually clears the water up at that depth so you can easily find your way in, and then you just meander through the cavern and come out the other side.

All I can say is . . . Thank goodness Iíd been there before.

I went down to check it out first and when I hit the bottom of the buoy, I could barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone find my way into the cavern. But after a few minutes of groping rock (always a lot of fun), I located the way in and was able to go back up, get Mark & Kathi, and off we went.

Itís a pretty short dive anyhow because itís not all that big of a place and you can pretty much just follow the walls around and find your way back out. And once we got inside the cavern itself, visibility improved dramatically and the water was very clear. But itís coming out back into the green gloom thatís interesting.

Partly thatís because itís a visually interesting transition but the other reason is that all the fish seem to hang out at the exit from the cavern. So when you go down the buoy line, there are no fish, but when you come out, itís Fish City. There are Bass and Sunfish who hang in the clear water just below the green, and a whole school of Snook who hang in the green water, just above the clear stuff. Made for interesting pictures.

Wednesday was our transition, or moving day, as we needed to end up about 75 miles north in Alachua. But we started off by checking with our friends at Adventure Diving in Crystal River, as they were going to be our guides again this year for our dive along the Rainbow River up in Dunnellon, north of Crystal River and on our way to Alachua.

Rainbow River, which I first dove back in 1979, is a spring-fed shallow river that runs for miles. We drove to the boat launch (you have to have a boat take you up the river - you then drift back down with the mild current) at K.P. Hole Park, paid our $3/person fee, loaded up the boat, and off we went.

The river flows at about 1mph and the starting point is about a mile-and-a-half upriver. The boat takes you up that far, you dress on board, do a giant stride to entry, grab a dive flag/float (which must be towed with you at all times), and off you go. The boat drifts with you the entire time and if you stop, which is pretty easy to do as the currentís not very strong, the boat drops anchor and waits.

The entire drift takes about two hours and the max depth that I hit on this was a whopping 19 feet. Most of the time, youíre probably barely ten feet deep. Sometimes, youíre less than a foot deep. Thatís also why itís really important to have the flag/float with you because there is boat traffic and youíre shallow enough that you can be struck by a moving vessel.

One change I noticed this year was a dramatic increase in the number of fish. There were almost always some small sunfish, perch, bream, or bass hanging around us. I donít remember that from years past. You also pass numerous ďsand boilsĒ along the way. These are sandy areas where the spring water percolates up, and the sand literally appears to be boiling. (A still picture doesnít do it justice so there are none on the Picture Page.)

But, surprisingly, there were NO fish in one of the usual highlights of the drift which is the Gar Hole. Normally, there are a dozen of Spotted Gar ranging in size from three to five feet, that hang in this one spot near the end of the drift. But not this year. So I started called the place ďThe Gar-less HoleĒ.

Rainbow River is a nice, pleasant, and easy drift dive. Itís definitely different than anything we can do in Crystal River and itís a nice break in the day for the drive up to Alachua. We left Rainbow by about 1PM, stopped in Williston for lunch (Hilltop Restaurant - nice local diner where the special for the day was the hot roast beef open-faced sandwich with mashed potatoes and gravy for $3.99), and then pulled into Alachua late in the afternoon.

Thursday was our first day of cavern diving and thereís no better place to do that than Ginnie Springs, about a 30-minute drive from Alachua.

Itís important to understand the difference between ďcavernsĒ and ďcavesĒ. First of all, theyíre both overhead environments. All caverns donít lead to caves but all caves start off with a cavern. The difference is in whether or not you can see natural light from the opening. As long as you can see natural light, itís a cavern. Once you canít see natural light, itís a cave. An even better way to think of it is that if youíve got enough light that you can see and maneuver around without turning on a dive light, itís a cavern. Once itís dark enough that you think you need a light, itís a cave.

And that also explains why when youíre in Florida Cave Country, thereís a hard-and-fast rule: If youíre not cave-certified, you are absolutely prohibited from carrying ANY kind of a dive light with you. This is to prevent you from being tempted to go in ďjust a little furtherĒ as thatís what turns non-cave-certified divers into body-recovery exercises for the cavers. Not a good way to end.

Thatís why Ginnie is a great place to start. Theyíve got four diveable springs and the largest one (Ginnie) has had the cave entrance blocked off by a welded steel grate, so itís impossible to get into that part of the cave system. That means that in that particular cavern (known as the Ballroom), you can carry a light whether youíre cave-certified or not. And itís a great way to get a feel for what cavern and cave diving is about. So after we checked in and paid our entrance fee ($30/day for divers), thatís where we started.

But before we talk about the dive, a quick word about the Ginnie facilities. Theyíre first-rate. There are picnic tables everywhere, specially-designed scuba equipment benches, plenty of boardwalks and stair access to all the springs, and it all not only makes it so much easier to get in and get out, but it also makes you feel like youíre getting something for your $30 besides permission to dive.

The diver at Ginnie is pretty benign. You walk down some stairs and put your fins on at the bottom. The entry is in a shallow basin, maybe 10-12 feet deep, and from there you enter the cavern under a ledge. Thereís plenty of light as you go in and you can easily make out a permanent line that is strung from maybe 20 feet in and which leads you all the way down and to the back wall. Thatís the area where youíll find the steel grate.

Thatís also where youíll start to realize that Ginnie isnít quite as benign as it may have first seemed. Because it turns out that each day, every day, seven days a week, 35 MILLION gallons of water flows through that grate. Thatís just over 400 gallons a SECOND. Putting it more bluntly, thatís a LOT of water.

So as you approach the grate, you realize thereís an amazing amount of force coming through it. And its pretty much as you can do to fight your way down to it and pose for the requisite picture of you hanging on for dear life, looking at the camera, and exhaling so everyone can see your bubbles being blown sideways. (Of course, realize that your humble photographer has to brace himself into position and somehow manage to hold the camera steady enough to find focus and take the shot.)

Generally I find that this is about a 20-30 minute dive. Play at the grate, look around, play at the grate some more, and youíve pretty much done it so out you come.

But one thing a lot of people donít do is to follow the flow of Ginnie down a small slough and out to the Sante Fe River. Last year when we did this, the river was pitch black due to all the rain theyíd gotten, so I was very curious to see what it was like this year. And the river is always somewhat darker than the springs because thereís a tannin in the river (not sure where it comes from - trees perhaps???) that turns it the color of weak tea.

And while the river was lighter in color this year than last, it was still pretty dark (as youíll see from the pictures). ďWell-steeped-teaĒ might be a way to describe the color. And it was coooooold, probably a good 10ļ colder than the 72ļ spring-fed water. (Interestingly, most of the fish hung out in the cooler waters.) It was also a trip to swim into the river water (or watch someone else do it) because you literally disappeared from view. Pretty spooky.

After a break, we did our second set of dives at Ginnie which is to visit the three springs known as the Devils - Little Devil, Devilís Eye, and Devilís Ear. The thing to remember here is that all three of these lead into cave systems. Not only does that mean donít carry a light, but it also means you want to be REALLY aware of your buoyancy and body control because from a common courtesy standpoint, you really donít want to be silting the place up. And these are all springs where you can easily cause a silt-out if you stop paying attention.

You start at Little Devil, a small vertical slit really, and you drop down about 20 feet or so and you can now see the entrance to the cave system. The flowís not too strong but you can definitely feel it.

From there, you surface and drift down to Devilís Eye which is pretty much a round hole with a flat bottom about 15 feet down. But once on that flat bottom (just above it actually so you donít silt it out), you can now duck under a ledge and enter the cavern area that leads to the cave entrance. This is also where youíll see a sign warning non-cavers to venture no further. Itís a sign well worth heeding.

After youíre done there, you drift a bit further down to the one thatís my favorite, Devilís Ear. Iíve always liked this one from a photographic standpoint (pictures examples on the Picture Page) because you first fight your way down against a strong flow to a fallen tree thatís maybe 20-25 feet deep. That in and of itself in fun. Once down there, look up.

Because Devilís Ear is right at the edge of the Sante Fe River, thereís a constant ebb and flow between the clean clear water coming out of the spring, and the dark tannin-stained tea-colored water of the river. As you look up, you can see the colors change, the water flows fight and mingle, rivulets of brown here, streams of clear there. It can be quite surreal, especially on a sunny day because youíre getting this really cool ever-changing light show. And when youíve tired of that, you simply let go, and the force of the outgoing water is enough to carry you right back up to the top and out.

A break for lunch and another dive in Ginnie and that made for quite a full day for us. And it only got better because we topped it off that evening with dinner in High Springs (between Alachua and Ginnie) at a lovely restaurant called The Great Outdoors (http://greatoutdoorsdining.com). Great food, lovely ambiance, good service, and well worth a visit. (In fact, it was so good, we went back Friday night as well.)

Our final day of diving this trip is always our most adventurous and also led to one of the most shocking discoveries on the trip. More on that in a moment.

We started the day off in Luraville, about an hour drive from Alachua. We went to the state park system that was known as Peacock Springs State Park and which was recently renamed Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park after Skiles, the National Geographic photographer who died last year during a dive and who lived in the area. Our target here was Orange Grove Sink, the only spring in this park where open-water divers are allowed to dive.

Orange Grove has always been a favorite of mine, from the time I first dive it back in 1979, before there was a state park, when the instructions were to turn at the Luraville light, follow the road, find a dirt road, turn left at the 10th tree, and donít drive off the cliff into the sinkhole. (It was a bit more rustic back then.) Now you pay your entry fee, follow the road in, and park in an area with picnic tables, dive equipment stations, porta-potties, and a boardwalk and stairs area leading down to the entrance to Orange Grove.

The first thing you notice at Orange Grove is the green oatmeal-like substance covering it. This is duckweed. But itís easy to use your fin or your hand to swish the water and literally make a hole in the duckweed (it only floats on the surface) and then make your entry. Once you submerge, the duckweed will close back over you but as your bubbles rise and break the surface, new open areas will form.

Underwater, you drop to the bottom through some fallen trees and there are two areas to explore. The first is the deeper cavern, Columbia (close to 100 feet at the bottom), which leads down to a cave system that connects with other sinkholes in the Park. The other area, The Throne Room, is shallower at about 65-70 feet but also perhaps deadlier. Thereís a memorial stone marker right at the entrance reminding those not qualified not to go in.

I can speak from experience that thatís a good thought as many years ago, before the dive light prohibition, I went in that entrance thinking I was heading into Columbia. The sort version of the story is that while we quickly realized our mistake and turned around and nothing happened to me and the two divers I was with, we had also silted out the pathway in and for a split second I thought we had lost sight of the exit. Fortunately, we had not, but let my close call be a wake-up call for you.

But you can certainly safely (and without a light) explore Orange Grove and the entrances to Columbia and the Throne Room. And then you can spend some time looking around the basin itself. One thing that puzzled us is that we saw maybe half a dozen or so fish in there, but we couldnít figure pout what they would eat. Because if itís each other, that will only go so far. Of course, if they like duckweed, theyíre set for life.

Leaving Orange Grove, we headed back to Branford, about half an hour away, and a treat I always look forward to each year: Lunch at Nellís. Theyíve got a luncheon buffet thatís simply just good old down-home cooking and theyíve got the best fried chicken around. If you read the 2010 or 2008 trip reports, you heard me rave about Nellís there.

So imagine our shock when we pulled up to Nellís and they were not only closed, but they ere . . . OUT OF BUSINESS!!!! It seems that Nellís daughters who had taken over the business from Nell, may not have been the best business people in the world. And their last day had been the day before we got there.

Now as luck would have it (once the shock wore off), we headed off to see what else we could find and a mere half a block north of Nellís (on Highway 129) we discovered a place called Sisterís Cafť. We figured, what the heck? And what a good decision that turned out to be. Same general format as Nellís (all-you-can-eat buffet if you want, menu if you donít) and the fried chicken was phenomenally good.

Turns out the place is owned by three sisters, many of their children and relatives work there, and the three sisters still come in every day and do al the cooking themselves. Absolutely fabulous, great food, wonderful selection (better than Nellís actually), and we will definitely be back there again. So now weíll start signing the praises of Sisterís Cafť.

After our fabulous lunch, the last stop on our journey was just outside of Branford at Troy Springs. This was a disappointment this year because the viz was pretty terrible. Iím not sure if this was because a bunch of people had kicked it up over the course of the day or what, but it was like diving in dark lime Gatorade. And there was all kinds of particulate in the water too boot, most likely from careless divers kicking stuff up over the course of the day, and none of it getting cleared out because the flow from the spring at Troy was pretty weak.

But (thereís a silver lining in every cloud) the cool thing was actually to kick out of the spring and follow the wide slough down to the river (the Suwannee this time) and while it was tea-colored like the Santa Fe at Ginnie, it also gave us a sighting of the Spotted Gar that should have been at the Gar Hole at Rainbow. In fact, there were lots of fish working the edge of the river, coming in to the slough, feeding on the floating debris, then heading back out to the river, only to circle back in again. And on top of all of that, we saw probably five or six turtles. They were all wary and fled pretty quickly when approached, but that was a nice way to end the dive. And then Saturday morning we packed up and hit the road for the two-hour drive back down to Orlando for our respective flights home.

This is certainly not a ďdive-intensiveĒ trip. If your idea of a dive vacation is dive/dive/dive/dive, then this is not the trip for you. But if youíre intrigued by the idea of seeing things you may have not seen before, experiencing some dive environments that are unique to Florida, and just having a good time at a leisurely pace, then you might get a kick out of this. And thatís why you might want to talk to me about 2012 because weíll be looking to do this trip again February of next year. And itís never too early to put your name down.

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